John McGrath

John McGrath: Mariners prefer to play for keeps, not play out the string

Seattle’s Nelson Cruz stands in the dugout Sunday during the eighth inning of a 3-2 loss to Oakland. The Mariners have a solid core to build around, but face another offseason of flux in pursuit of their first playoff berth since 2001.
Seattle’s Nelson Cruz stands in the dugout Sunday during the eighth inning of a 3-2 loss to Oakland. The Mariners have a solid core to build around, but face another offseason of flux in pursuit of their first playoff berth since 2001. The Associated Press

For the second time in three years, the Mariners on Sunday afternoon closed out the season with a meaningless home game played in the immediate wake of playoff elimination.

The mood at Safeco Field was pleasant — “see you next April!’’ the ushers told fans — but after the wild ride in quest of the wild card concluded Saturday night with a thrilling heartbreaker, the contest resembled one of those benching-clearing Cactus League exhibitions where keeping score becomes a chore.

“We didn’t have a whole lot of wind in our sails,” Mariners manager Scott Servais admitted after his team’s 3-2 defeat to Oakland. “Last night, and the run we’ve been on, took a lot out of everybody, physically and emotionally.”

That there was nothing at stake reminded me of how fun the final day of the season can be when two or three games on the scoreboard matter as much as the game on the field. Final day suspense in baseball is one of the great joys of sports. And when it’s absent, there’s a temptation to assign big-picture meaning to the meaningless.

“We’ve got a good team going on right now. Next year we’ll show what we’re capable of,” said Felix Hernandez, virtually echoing the words then-manager Lloyd McClendon used a few hours after the Mariners were bounced from 2014 playoff race.

After that so-close-yet-so-far finish, the 2015 Mariners won their season opener and never spent another day over .500. Health issues that contributed to the poor first half of second baseman Robinson Cano, it turned out, were quite more significant than any bonds forged by the bitter-end events of the previous season.

Speaking of Cano: He tapped a ground ball to the right side of the Oakland infield Sunday and hustled to first base at full speed. Cano began the afternoon hitting .299, and a single would have put his batting average over .300 — the roundest number in baseball.

Even though he didn’t reach .300, Cano rebounded with an MVP-caliber effort this season, and is among the sure things on a roster certain to undergo some change, though not to the radical extent it did last winter.

Cano, designated hitter Nelson Cruz and third baseman Kyle Seager are the heart-of-the-order keepers, of course. Center fielder Leonys Martin arrived in Seattle with a reputation as a superior defender, but his 15-homer power was a nice surprise. Martin will be a starter in 2017, as will catcher Mike Zunino.

Otherwise, general manager Jerry Dipoto is facing decisions at first base, shortstop and two corner outfield positions. That’s not to suggest the likes of Adam Lind, Dae-Ho Lee, Ketel Marte, Franklin Gutierrez, Nori Aoki and Seth Smith all will be gone, but it’s reasonable to presume two or three from that group has worn a Mariners uniform for the last time.

Dipoto figures to make some minor bullpen adjustments, but he won’t reprise the mad scientist act from a year ago. The rotation is pretty much set around a big three of Felix Hernandez, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, which brings us to the recipe for the Mariners’ first playoff advancement since 2001.

Hernandez, who finished 11-8 after taking the loss in a three-inning start Sunday, has been urged to participate in a winter workout program similar to the one that rejuvenated Cano.

“It hasn’t been a great season for Felix,” said Servais. “We missed him six or seven weeks when he was out. It really hurt. He’s got an ability to go deep into games and take innings on, but to do that he’s going to have to make a few adjustments in the offseason and come into spring training in a little better shape, with more urgency.

“We need him in the top of the rotation.”

The Mariners also need some version of a full season from Paxton and Walker, whose combined record of 14-18 is as good an explanation as any on why the Mariners were nosed out of the wild-card race with 86 victories. Had Paxton and Walker merely reversed that combined record, Seattle finishes with 90 victories and home-field advantage in the wild-card game.

Servais was reminded how the Mariners did achieve the more modest distinction of winning more games than they lost.

“I’m not in it to finish above .500,” he said. “I’m really not. No doubt the Mariners in their history have not had a lot of seasons over. 500. I get it. But we’re in it to get to the playoffs, get deep, and get to the World Series. Everything we do as an organization will be geared toward that.

“Whether it’s decisions made on personnel, on players, on coaches, on scouts, it’s got to be a championship-type organization. We’ll continue to build on what we started this year.”

Servais’s 2017 wish list begins with an AL West title, “so we don’t have to worry about this wild-card stuff.”

Worrying about the wild-card stuff can be a grind, but it’s a whole lot more fun than anybody had Sunday, when there was no reason to worry at all.